Finally. I smelled the dry air and felt my skin slowly burned to a crisp, by the merciless sun which shone over Bagan. I've mouthed the word "wow" many times at the many temples, stupas and pagodas stretched out in front of me. Each second I savored and filled my head with unforgettable images not only of the place, but its people. I was particularly endeared by these young children we met on our first morning in New Bagan. The previous night we arrived wasted from the almost 36 hours of no-sleep traveling from Manila - layover in Kuala Lumpur - whole day in Yangon and the 8 hour trip to New Bagan.
As the next day broke out of Bagan's surprisingly chilly night, we took a walk around town and was immediately greeted by half a dozen young girls and boys. Each were offering us postcards, both photographed and hand drawn. They reminded me of the children at Angkor Wat in Cambodia who would follow you with a banter of "one dollar, one dollar only". In here though, its 1,000 - 2,000 kyats per set of postcards (10 pieces).
Of all the kids who huddled around us, two girls and a young boy stood out. It was the innocent and welcoming smile on their faces that I instantly recognized as "haunting, familiar, yet i can't seem to place it". I felt a different kind of familiarity. It was like I was meeting sister(s) I never had. A young brother I never had. The young boy proud of his hand-drawn postcards of temples that abounds in this timeless place of Bagan, quietly showed his drawings to us. Not begging for us to buy from him, just staring at us in our eyes, hopeful but not imposing. It was effective enough as most of us, even though having bought a sackful of postcards already the previous day in Yangon, didn't mind buying more from him.
Afterwards, we took photographs of them as they gamely posed for our camera. Their physical features not different from ours, were uniquely defined by the thanaka they were wearing on their faces. It was like a mask, that protects their skin from sunburn, but never shielding their most striking and comely features. The smile on their faces.
Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of Myanmar (formerly Burma) seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys.The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.
Instead of walking around we just ended up spending much of time lingering in the area. Gay's little girl Luna played with them. They live in an environment dissimilar to ours (same-same-but-different), scenery and political set-up. It was a welcome surprise not to feel any strangeness. Dong Ho was even telling us he could live there for a long time. You would think that by traveling to two countries just to come here, one would feel being a long way from home.
These kids, with their thanaka smiling faces reminds me how innocent the world they belong to. In a timeless place like Bagan. I'm sure we can all return to innocence once in a while and leave all our baggage behind. It was a totally different story though, for another young boy with spiky hair. He stalked us through our breakfast and social media update moment. He was the polar opposite of the three kids we met. But, hey the world is full of varying characters. You take the good with the annoying. Too bad, he stood out in a different manner than these three kids pictured above. I never smile on pictures, but I really want to smile through my actions. An encounter like this, reinforces that resolve. They seem happy and contented, I should too, you must also. We all have to.